The '51 Snowstorm And 'the Worst Jam In History'

December 19, 2009|By JACQUES KELLY

Baltimore does not handle snow well, and December snows come with their own peculiar consequences. Over the years, I've collected favorite snow tales, and my vote for the 12th month goes to Dec. 14, 1951. It was a Friday. Downtown Baltimore was mobbed with Christmas shoppers. The storm arrived unexpectedly about noon after most people had left for work or boarded streetcars, buses and trackless trolleys for the department and variety stores, as well as Lexington Market downtown.

The snow fell heavily for a short while in midafternoon as many shoppers and workers converged on the downtown. When it came time to head home, the city's arteries became tied in knots, long knots, knots that took hours to unravel. The Baltimore Sun's headline the next day: "Worst Jam in History of Baltimore." The news story began with a three-word sentence: "Baltimore stood still."

I was an infant, but the stories of friends who became separated from family members for agonizingly long periods of time that day circulated for years.

Women who should have been home by 5 p.m. were trapped on public transit vehicles that maybe delivered them home at 8:30. In the meantime, those waiting at home grew frantic over suddenly unaccounted-for people who earlier in the day had done nothing more venturesome than slip down to Howard and Lexington for some Christmas shopping. For some, it was a day of panic and fear.

The Sun's account attributed the claim of "worst traffic jam" to police. Reporters wrote that footpower was the main means of locomotion throughout downtown for five hours. "It was not much better in the suburban sections," the article said.

Police Commissioner Beverly Ober described it all succinctly: "A hell of a mess." Police were flooded with calls from worried mothers about their children caught in the "gigantic transportation tieup." It grew worse when the phone system temporarily collapsed under the volume of calls. At one point in the afternoon, it took a half-hour to get through to the Chesapeake & Potomac's major downtown exchange, Lexington, or 539. No wires fell down. It was just too many people using phones.

Thankfully, there were no big downtown fires. The fire chief said, "About the only thing I can do is pray. ... We can't move because of the jammed streets."

The storm demonstrated that the auto was taking over what had been a city that depended upon streetcars. The old Baltimore Transit Co. had its huge electric snow sweepers and cinder spreaders out, trying to keep the rails open, but these were blocked by stalled Studebakers, Buicks and Fords whose drivers were caught off-guard and unable to install tire chains for traction.

"Streetcar rides from downtown to the suburbs were voyages of three, four and five hours," The Sun reported. A trip from Towson to Irvington took six hours after 3:30 p.m. One woman on the crowded No. 32 streetcar who was trying to get home was heard calling out, "I can't breathe."

"All observers noticed a striking contrast between downtown pedestrians tramping through the snow and the motorists fretting and raging in their stalled, slipping mechanical chariots," the newspaper reported. A man said, "Everybody walking around seemed to be smiling."

The total accumulation that Friday: 4 inches.

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